The French national anthem, “La Marseillaise,” can resonate differently in an on-screen Moroccan setting. Most famous, perhaps, is the “Casablanca” version, in which the clientele of Rick’s Café sing it loud and proud to drown out the voices of the occupying Germans.
Then there is the “Little Birds” version, which is belted out venomously in a packed nightclub by a gold-toothed Moroccan prostitute (Yumna Marwan). This time, it’s the turn of the French occupiers to squirm in their seats.
The scene is a perfect encapsulation of the tensions at the heart of “Little Birds,” a sexually freewheeling six-part series debuting Sunday on Starz. Set in the colonial port city of Tangier in 1955, the show is based loosely on the Anaïs Nin book of erotic short stories of the same name, which was published posthumously in 1979. Nin, who died two years earlier at age 73, had written the stories in the 1940s for a male benefactor who paid her a dollar a page and repeatedly advised: “Concentrate on sex. Leave out the poetry.”
Previous screen adaptations of Nin’s work, such as the films “Henry & June” (1990) and “Delta of Venus” (1995), were made by male directors. “Little Birds” has a mostly female-led creative team, including its creator, Sophia Al-Maria, and series director, Stacie Passon — a welcome update in a show that examines sexual desire in all its guises.
“There’s an openness to experience and an openness to perspective in Nin’s literature,” Al-Maria said. “Those things were something I really wanted to infuse the characters with.”
Al-Maria, who was brought up shuttling between her mother’s hometown in Washington State and her Bedouin father’s native Qatar, said she first read “Little Birds” at the library of the American University in Cairo, when she was a 16-year-old undergraduate. Al-Maria, now 37, said in a video call last month from London that she had appreciated the stories at that time for a “peeling back of layers of expectation, especially around sexuality.”
But when she revisited the stories years later, she found herself recoiling from them in ways that made her want to subvert them.
“Often, the stories are quite racist or they have these sorts of really uncomfortable perspectives inside of them,” said Al-Maria, who as a visual artist has had solo exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art, in New York, and Tate Britain, in London.
“So to put it within a cast of characters who each have something to say about that gaze,” she added, “was a major thing for me.”
None of Nin’s original “Little Birds’” stories were set in Tangier, although her literary diaries reveal that she traveled throughout Morocco. Al-Maria saw an opportunity to fuse two aspects of the author’s life in a way that fundamentally challenged contemporary viewers and the source material.
“I genuinely think that studying post-colonial literature in Cairo during my undergraduate years had a really major influence on the way that I went back and read European authors,” Al-Maria said. “When looking at Nin again, I sort of regressed back to that moment in the library in Cairo, so I think that’s one of the reasons why North Africa made sense to me.”
Al-Maria homed in on Tangier in 1955 because of its international appeal and because it was a particularly dynamic time politically, just a year before Morocco gained independence from France and Spain. “I was interested in all of these different characters from different backgrounds who have escaped to Tangier for different reasons, and their kinks somehow being symbolic of their positionality inside of the world at the time,” Al-Maria said.
This TV adaptation, which earned the cinematographer Ed Rutherford a BAFTA nomination (it first aired in August in Britain, on Sky Atlantic), recasts Nin’s stories as a single narrative about an unworldly American heiress (Juno Temple) who arrives in Tangier to marry a closeted gay English aristocrat with money troubles (Hugh Skinner). The Moroccan city, which was then an international zone under the joint administration of several European countries, is depicted as a playground for the bohemian jet set. Westerners and wealthy Arabs looking to express their sexuality without fear rub shoulders in the series with impoverished Moroccans who eagerly await the return of their sultan.
In a video call, Temple, 31, said she viewed her starring role as Lucy Savage as an amalgam of several of the characters in Nin’s short stories, and of Nin herself.
“Whether it’s through the tastes and smells of Morocco, or whether it’s through seeing the sexuality of others and their erotic footprint on the planet, or through finding a husband and trying to set up a perfect life, Lucy is constantly looking for things to feed her hunger,” Temple said.
Temple, who read “Little Birds” as a teenager (in her case, on a trans-Atlantic flight from her native London to Los Angeles), worked closely with Passon, who is American, to have Lucy reflect Nin’s complex relationship with her father. In an unexpurgated diary titled “Incest,” Nin, who was born to Cuban parents, wrote about having an affair with her father, Joaquín Nin, at age 30, after two decades of estrangement. In the series, there are hints at a similar relationship between Lucy and her father, a pompous American arms dealer, played by David Costabile.
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Temple said that she and Passon spent hours talking about the nature of eroticism and about how people often confuse “sexy” and “erotic.”
“Sexy is a power that every woman has but they know what they’re doing, whereas eroticism takes you by surprise,” Temple said. “So it’s the stuff that people are more nervous to talk about and more nervous to explore because that’s taboo.”
Passon, 51, said in a video call that several other female directors had turned down the opportunity to direct “Little Birds” before she accepted the job.
“I see the value in projects that others seem to run from, and I think Sophia does as well,” said Passon, who won several awards for her 2013 film “Concussion.” Even Passon, however, was taken aback by just how fearlessly Temple embraced her role.
“Juno was always pushing boldly to the idea of exploring desire” between Lucy and her father, Passon said. “I was initially really scared of it, quite frankly. I was like, ‘How do we do that?’ And she was like, ‘But, that’s Nin.’”
Nin, though, contains multitudes; Passon noted that it was not always entirely clear when her writing could be trusted.
“Anaïs Nin had a lie box,” Passon said. “She literally had to write her lies down and put them in a box so she could keep track of them.” Her dissimulation, Passon added, included having simultaneous husbands on both American coasts.
Nin wrote her erotic short stories “for a male gaze,” Al-Maria noted — another feature of the writing she found problematic. Nonetheless, Al-Maria suggested that the stories have remained relevant from a feminist point of view because of their intensity of feeling.
“There is an array of protagonists in her short stories,” she said, “but the central through line, I think, is that there is always a real emotional depth.”
Al-Maria was moved to consider her own life when she created the character of Adham (Raphael Acloque), a wealthy gay Egyptian who gambols around Tangier in his open-topped sports car. “Adham is an absolute mixture of people that I know and love,” Al-Maria said. “He’s also named after a friend.”
She notes that one of her favorite scenes in the show occurs when Adham is in bed with a hookup. This man “basically calls him out for playacting this role with his fancy car and his fancy suits, going to these fancy restaurants,” Al-Maria said. “That’s a conversation that I’ve heard so many times and that I’ve experienced myself.”
Acloque, 36, who has dual French and Algerian nationality, said in a video call that it had not been an easy role for him to research.
“When it comes to an Arab in the 1950s being gay and coming to Tangier to have this life, I didn’t find anything helpful from a historical point of view,” he said. The role clicked for Acloque on a personal level during a scene in which his character encounters two veiled women living alone because their husband had been taken away for questioning by the colonial authorities. He never returned.
“My grandfather had been taken sometimes by the French police or the French army just to be asked questions and would disappear for three days,” Acloque said. “My mum was 10 when Algeria became independent, and she was like, ‘I would never know if he would come back or not.’”
Adham’s encounter with the two women leads him to realize that however much he tries to behave like a white man, he will always be an Arab in their eyes. His personal awakening is emblematic of an epochal moment when pan-Arabism was sweeping North Africa, one of many historical details in “Little Birds” whose continuing resonance lends the series potency.
“Let’s say that for most of Adham’s life he’s been a horse trying to pretend he was a zebra,” Acloque said. “But you can paint yourself as much as you want — at the end of the day, you are what you are.”